Carmakers Held Liable for Driverless Car Failings, say Lawyers

British lawyers are calling for automakers to shoulder unlimited legal responsibility for a driverless vehicle’s actions on the roads.

The move would redefine the driver as a ‘user-in-charge’ and absolve that human of any blame for the vehicle’s driving tasks in the event of an accident or breach of any highway regulations. As reported by the BBC, the UK’s Law Commission was asked in 2018 to come up with a series of reports on the regulatory framework for automated vehicles and their use on public roads.

Its final report’s findings include:

  • A user-in-charge cannot be prosecuted for offences arising directly from the driving task, such as dangerous driving, speeding or running a red light, but remains responsible for other tasks, including insurance and checking people are wearing seatbelts;
  • Some vehicles may be allowed to drive themselves with no-one in the driving seat and a licensed operator responsible for overseeing the journey;
  • Data to understand fault and liability following a collision must be accessible;
  • Sanctions to be applied against carmakers who fail to reveal how their systems work.

In the meantime, carmakers must communicate explicitly to consumers about the difference between self-drive and driver-assist features. There should be no sliding scale of driverless capabilities, meaning a car is either autonomous or not. In the event driver monitoring is necessary, such as in extreme weather conditions, it should not be considered autonomous and current driving rules should apply.

Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo CEO

Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo

This call will not come as a surprise to some carmakers including Volvo that pledged to take on the responsibility for any failure of its autonomous driving systems in an interview with TU-Automotive at the Geneva Motor Show back in 2017. CEO Håkan Samuelsson said there must be no ambiguity over responsibility when things go wrong. He said: “It has to be a very clear situation and that’s why we want to avoid Level 3. It’s either a normal car that you drive as usual or you are driven by the car then liability will have to be on the carmaker. You can’t have an autonomous car that relies on the driver as a kind of back-up. That’s too dangerous.”

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research, which was involved in the consultation, said in a statement: “The transition to safe introduction of automation with self-driving capabilities is fraught with risk as we enter the early stages of adoption. Today’s report is a significant step, as it provides important legal recommendations and clarity for the safe deployment of vehicles with self-driving features onto the UK’s roads. In the next 12 months, we’re likely to see the first iterations of self-driving features on cars on UK roads. It’s significant that the Law Commission report highlights driver’s legal obligations and they understand that their vehicle is not yet fully self-driving. It has self-driving features that, in the near future, will be limited to motorway use at low speeds.
“The driver will need to be available to take back control at any time, won’t be permitted to sleep or use their mobile phones, the vehicle won’t be able to change lanes and if the driver does not take back control, when requested, it will stop in lane on the motorway. It is critical that early adopters understand these limitations and their legal obligations. To ensure clarity around system capabilities and responsibilities there must be a clear separation between Assisted Driving, where the car supports the driver, and self-driving capability, where the car is responsible for the entire driving task. As such, we applaud the recommendations that compel carmakers to use appropriate terminology when marketing these systems, to prevent motorists from becoming convinced that their car is fully self-driving, when it is not.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_


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